Enabling web conferencing in Ubuntu Linux

Ubuntu logoUbuntu Linux and other distributions like Edubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu have come in leaps and bounds in recent years and are becoming more fully featured and easier to use. I think they are now getting to the stage where they are potential replacements for Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OS X for elearning. Well, almost…

Web conferencing usually requires Flash

Elearning increasingly includes live multi-way video web conferencing, which on Ubuntu Linux can be problematic. Most web conferencing platforms and systems require either Adobe Flash Player or Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to be installed. If you use the standard Firefox web browser, you need to install Flash Player as an extra, since it isn’t free and open source software (FOSS) and cannot be included in FOSS distributions. Luckily, it’s easy enough to do via Ubuntu’s software centre. It’s a similar process to installing apps on a smartphone or tablet but faster and easier.

More uses of Flash in Ubuntu Linux

There are other areas where Flash Player can be useful. For example, Ubuntu Linux doesn’t have support for the H.264 video CODEC. H.264 is used all over the web, including Youtube*, Vimeo, and Google Hangouts. Adobe Flash Player is an easy workaround to allow you to access and view those services. Also, the SWF Activity Module, Online Audio Recording, Soundcloud, WizIQ, LiveStreaming, and many more plugins for Moodle, as well as Moodle’s default media player, all use Flash.

* Youtube will play video without Flash or H.264 as HTML5 but only low-resolution versions intended for some mobile phones and not all videos are available in this format.

How to install Flash Player in Chrome, Chromium, and Opera

However, installing Adobe Flash Player doesn’t make it available to all web browsers on your operating system (Even on Windows, you need to install one Flash player for Internet Explorer and then one for other browsers). If you want to install Flash Player for other web browsers in Ubuntu, e.g. Google Chrome, Google Chromium (the FOSS version of Google Chrome) or in Opera, it’s a bit more complicated. This means using the Terminal (Ubuntu’s command line; press “Ctrl + Alt + t” to open it) and carefully typing in the following commands. After the first command, Ubuntu will prompt you for your admin password, which is usually the same password you use to log in with (if you’re the computer owner):

sudo apt-get install pepperflashplugin-nonfree
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get autoremove

How to install Java Runtime Environment

Some video web conferencing services and systems require Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to run on your computer. Most notably, Blackboard Collaborate, formerly known as Elluminate Live, requires JRE but even with it and the Iced-Tea browser plugin installed, it can have issues with connecting the audio. This is a frustrating issue that I haven’t found a workaround for yet. Please let me know if you know of one!

You can install JRE and the browser plugin from the Ubuntu Software centre. Look for the OpenJDK Java 7 Runtime and the Icedtea Java Browser plugin and install them both. If you’re feeling more confident with using the Ubuntu Terminal (Ctrl + Alt + t), it’s quicker and easier to install them like this and it will make sure that your computer uses the latest installed version of JRE by default:

sudo apt-get install openjdk-7-jre
sudo apt-get install icedtea-plugin
sudo update-alternatives --config java
sudo apt-get update

More uses of Java Runtime Environment

There are a number of web resources and projects for elearning that require JRE. These include Tufts University’s Virtual Understanding Environment (VUE), a feature rich concept mapping tool, as well as the NanoGong audio recording, Scratch learning games, Java Molecular Editor, Easy Java Simulations (and Open Source Physics), Jmol 3D molecular chemical structure, GroupDocs Viewer plugins for Moodle all require JRE.

Finally

So it looks like Ubuntu Linux is almost there… but not quite yet. Support for multi-way video web conferencing is there and is possible but not complete, especially in the case of Blackboard Collaborate. It’s also sometimes necessary to install additional software in ways that most “normal” users may find confusing and/or discouraging to do themselves on their own computers. Additionally, many learners and teachers may not know why their web conferencing platform doesn’t work or know that it can be fixed by installing the correct software. Let’s hope things improve further in the coming months or years.

Free and low-cost Moodle hosting options

MoodleEvery year, web hosting and installing web apps becomes less technically demanding, quicker, and simpler and it’s getting to the point nowadays where it’s a consumer level endeavour. Here’s a few of the easiest low-cost options for hosting Moodle that I’ve seen so far.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of the hosting providers mentioned in this article, neither am I endorsing any of their services. I’m citing them, without prejudice, as examples of types of Moodle hosting and they are by no means the best or only options that are available.

Why not use a regular web hosting service?

By “regular” I mean website hosting providers like GoDaddy, BlueHost, HostGator, etc. that are aimed at individuals and small businesses who only want to set up and blog or website to offer information, contact details, product and service catalogues, shopping carts, news, small downloads, etc.

Moodle 2.x is a large, powerful, and resource hungry piece of software. It’s a content management system, contacts and messaging management system, course management system, and can deploy multiple instances of discussion forums, wikis, blogs, presentations, documentation, multimedia resources, etc.. In other words, it requires a web hosting service that is more powerful than what most websites do. Using a regular web hosting service for Moodle is like using a car when you need a truck. The price gap between a website that runs WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal (a shared hosting service from about $5 per month) to a website that can handle Moodle (dedicated servers from about $80 per month) is a large jump and prohibitive to people who just want to try it out or run small, experimental, and/or exploratory projects (e.g. for research).

Are there cheaper ways to host or use Moodle?

Yes, there are. Here’s a few examples:

MoodleCloud[update 2015-07-05] MoodleCloud

Moodle Pty., the people who develop Moodle are now offering free Moodle accounts on their cloud hosting platform. It works in the same way as MDL2.com (see below) but has the following restrictions:

  • 50 users maximum
  • 200Mb disk space
  • Core themes and plugins only
  • Requires a mobile phone number to verify your identity

However, it does also include use of BigBlueButton, the free and open source video web conferencing and virtual classroom system for up to 6 users at a time.

Linkhttps://moodle.com/cloud/

FreeMoodle.org FreeMoodle.org

If you’re a complete beginner and just want to try out Moodle as a teacher and course content developer, and/or curriculum developer, you can get started for free with FreeMoodle.org. This service has been running consistently and, as far as I know, under the same terms of service for as long as I’ve been using Moodle (Since 2006).

Pricing: Free for your own course(s) but very limited admin controls or privileges and on your courses only.

Link: http://www.freemoodle.org/

If you don’t need an online Moodle and only want it for personal use, you can install it on your personal computer, on Windows, OS X, or Linux. Please see this article: Update: Do you want to get started with Moodle?

In the past few months, I’ve come across a couple of new Moodle hosting service providers that I think offer good value for money. They are:

MDLSpot.com

This is a shared hosting service which runs one installation of the Moodle software but creates multiple instances of Moodle so that everyone can set up their very own Moodle and have admin access and control over the entire instance (WordPress.com operates in a similar way). AFAIK, you can’t install any 3rd party plugins or extensions yourself, so you’re limited to what standard Moodle can do “out of the box” plus a few “pre-approved” plugins and extensions.

Pricing: They don’t publish their pricing but they informed me that they charge something similar to Amazon Web Services usage rates (you pay per hour for what resources you use) which starts at around $200 USD per year. I suggest contacting them to confirm exactly how much your Moodle hosting would cost and what plugins and extensions they make available.

Link: http://www.mdlspot.com/

MDL2.comMDL2.com

This is an advertising supported service, i.e. free if you allow advertising in your courses (which may or may not be appropriate). Again, you get your own “out of the box” Moodle and have admin access to it.

Pricing: Advertising supported

Link: http://www.mdl2.com/

Here’s a list of free and ad supported Moodle hosting services.

Bitnami.comBitnami.com

Bitnami.com are more than just a Moodle hosting service. They’re a full cloud hosting service provider, mostly aimed at web developers, that have also developed a number of consumer level, user friendly website installation systems and services. If you create a Moodle instance with them, you get a virtual private server (VPS) which allows you sysadmin level access. This gives you almost complete freedom to install and add whatever features to Moodle and also install other software alongside it, meaning you can do some very advanced things with Bitnami that most low-cost web hosting services don’t allow.

BTW, Moodle is designed to be run on a “LAMP stack” (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) so Windows hosting options are not advisable.

Pricing: https://bitnami.com/cloud/pricing (See the FAQs at the bottom of the page; They offer very favourable terms and conditions). A “micro instance” with Moodle installed starts at around $200 USD per year.

AWS pricing: http://aws.amazon.com/pricing/ If you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon, e.g. books, movies, electronics, or whatever, you already have an Amazon account. All you have to do is activate an Amazon Web Services account.

Link: https://bitnami.com/stack/moodle

Finally

These are just a few examples of the options available and there are many more. If you know of any others or are a service provider that offers low-cost hosting services capable of supporting Moodle (2.5 and later), please let me know.

Discussion

You can follow and participate in the Moodle.org community’s response to this article here.

Free and open source concept map app for Moodle

Concept MapI’m pleased to announce that the  Concept Map app is now available on my Github.com repository as a free and open source project. It works with the SWF Activity Module for Moodle 1.9 and 2.5+ and a compiled version of the app is included pre-installed with the latest version of the SWF Activity Module for Moodle 2.5+.

What does the Concept Map app do?

Learners are presented with a blank page and drawing and writing tools with a limited palate of colours and shapes. Limiting the colour and shape options is intended to reduce the time and effort that learners spend on those aspects and hopefully focus their attention more on their learning objectives. Learners can draw and write and move the drawn lines, shapes, and text. The app works with all the usual input tools such as mouse, keyboard, and touch screen.

When learners are ready, they can click on the camera icon button to send a copy of the image to the server which gets saved as a PNG image file. Subsequent camera icon button clicks will overwrite the existing image for that particular activity for that particular learner. However, if you’d like to keep a history of images, the service script that saves the images can be modified to do that. If it’s deployed in Moodle, a corresponding grade book entry is created for the learner and the image is embedded in the grade book feedback column. The saved concept map can then be viewed and graded by teachers. In addition, learners with the appropriate permissions can view their concept maps in the grade book or in the File System repository and embed them in other Moodle activities.

Free and open source

As a free and open source project, it’s free to download, use, edit, and redistribute under the terms of the GPLv3 licence. This means that you can develop the project further to perform more or different functions according to your learners’ particular needs and learning ideas. The project is configured to work with FlashDevelop, a free and open source Actionscript and Flash integrated development environment (IDE) but can also be edited and compiled with other Flash and Actionscript IDEs.

Useful links

Greenwood College SchoolAcknowledgement

The interactive whiteboard SWF idea was conceived at Greenwood College School as a means to further personalize the learning experience for its students. Greenwood is excited to be partnering with Matt Bury on this project because this module enhancement will help educators using Moodle to track student progress using a flexible, online input method.

Greenwood College School

I’m moving my open source projects from Google to GitHub

github logoThis is a quick announcement concerning my open source project hosting. On the 20th May 2013, Google Code posted the following announcement;

Starting today, existing projects that do not have any downloads and all new projects will not have the ability to create downloads. Existing projects with downloads will see no visible changes until January 14, 2014 and will no longer have the ability to create new downloads starting on January 15, 2014.  All existing downloads in these projects will continue to be accessible for the foreseeable future.” — Source: http://google-opensource.blogspot.ca/2013/05/a-change-to-google-code-download-service.html

In other words, as of 15th January 2014, I will not longer be able to provide installer packages for my open source projects on Google Code. Because of this and the greater flexibility, functionality, IDE integration, and social features of Github, I am moving my projects there. My Github repositories are available here: https://github.com/matbury

Safe social networking alternatives

Safe social networking alternativesIn a previous post that I co-authored with Jeff Dionne, A thorny issue: Protecting teachers’ and learners’ right to privacy, we highlighted some of the ethical and legal risks of using popular commercial social networking and micro blogging sites such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter for educational purposes. Although modern LMS’ built on Social Constructivist approaches provide a number of tools for collaboration and social interaction, they don’t quite offer the persistence and immediacy of the services offered by Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al. So as a follow up to that article, here’s some secure, free and open source alternatives.

What are the criteria that make a social networking platform lower-risk?

For details about what some of the risks are, please see A thorny issue: Protecting teachers’ and learners’ right to privacy. Here’s a few points that make a social networking platform more ethical and legal for your learners to use:

  • Own and administer your teachers’ and learners’ personal information and user generated content.
  • Audit and monitor all channels of communication, including private messages.
  • Manage and define individual teachers’ and learners’ user access privileges.
  • Take down any inappropriate posts, comments or content as soon as they’re reported or detected.
  • Prevent inappropriate or distracting messages from being shown to teachers and learners, i.e. advertising, apps, games, etc.
  • In the case of younger learners, contact parents and/or guardians quickly and easily, e.g. via email, as soon as issues arise.

How can we achieve this?

There are free and open source projects that enable schools, academies, colleges, universities and companies to create and maintain their own social networking services. It’s early days but the outlook is promising.

StatusNetStatusNet

StatusNet is free open source micro blogging software that offers functionality similar to Twitter, Facebook and Google+. However, StatusNet seeks to provide the potential for open, inter-service and distributed communications between micro blogging communities by adopting the OStatus micro blogging communications standard. Enterprises and individuals can install and control their own services and data.

StatusNet is ready for production use (Version 1.0.1) and I’ve installed an instance on my server: http://statusnet.matbury.com

[update] Having explored StatusNet further, I think it’s still not ready for production use. For example, there’s no moderator or admin interface for managing user accounts so you have to go into the database to find the list of users’ IDs in order to discover their profile pages.

Diaspora*Diaspora*

Diaspora* is currently in Alpha development so it isn’t yet ready for production use. It’s a free personal web server that implements a distributed social networking and micro blogging service. Installations of the software can optionally form nodes (termed “pods”) which make up the distributed Diaspora social network. Diaspora is intended to address privacy concerns related to centralized social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+, by allowing users set up their own server (or “pod”) to host content; pods can then interact to share status updates, photographs, and other social data. It allows its users to host their data with a traditional web host, a cloud-based host, an ISP, or a friend. (Source: Wikipedia.org)

There are currently a number of experimental Diaspora* pods up and running that users can join. If you want to try it out, here’s a list of available pods.

The development team are currently working on a feature whereby teachers and learners can export their own data, making it easier for schools, academies, colleges, universities and companies to comply with existing freedom of information laws.

BuddyPressBuddyPress

BuddyPress is a plugin for WordPress which transforms it into a social networking platform. It’s smaller in scope compared to StatusNet and Diaspora* but it’s also ready for use on production servers. It isn’t possible to connect instances of BuddyPress into a network so users have to rely on RSS feeds and pingbacks to keep track of other BuddyPress sites. It’s suitable if you only want your social networks to run from a single site and collaboration between different schools, academies, colleges, universities, agencies and companies will be difficult.

I’m currently experimenting with an installation of WordPress + BuddyPress here. Please feel free to enroll and join in!

elgg.elgg.

Elgg is an award-winning open source social networking engine that provides a robust framework on which to build all kinds of social environments, from a campus wide social network for your university, school or college or an internal collaborative platform for your organization through to a brand-building communications tool for your company and its clients. (Source: http://elgg.org/about.php)

I’ve installed elgg. on my server and I’m exploring its functions and possible uses for educational purposes.